Classification

Probably the type of pica that has received the most scientific and lay scrutiny is the consumption of earth, called geophagy. This word was first applied by Aristotle, and it means, literally, "dirt eating." Since that time, it has gone under many names, including allotriophagia (Sophocles), erdessen (medieval Germany), mal d'estomac (French), citta, and cachexia Africana. The last, from the Latin, meaning "the wasting away of Africans," was a condition first noted by slave owners in the West Indies. Unlike some of the other types of pica, geophagy is and has been a nearly universal phenomenon. There are records of earth consumption on all continents, and at nearly all times. Throughout history, it seems humankind has been consuming dirt, clay, mud, chalk, and various other types of earth for nutritional, cultural, and psychological reasons.

Still another type of pica is called papophagia, although some believe that it is not a disorder at all. The word is from the Greek and means "the eating of frost or ice," and was coined by a U.S. Air Force doctor, Charles Coltman. Some modern weight loss plans recommend the chewing or sucking of ice as a method of appetite control, and those who work with people trying to quit smoking often suggest that smokers chew ice as a substitute.

Amylophagia refers to the consumption of laundry starch, which is almost exclusively associated with women. It was first noticed in the rural American South, and is believed to have begun with women who originally consumed clay, but switched to laundry starch. Hilda Hertz, in a 1947 article, observed that although the tastes of clay and starch are quite different, the texture is similar. Later research indicated that pregnant women ate starch because it relieved nausea, vomiting, and morning sickness. Local black culture held that if a woman consumed laundry starch while pregnant, her baby would "slide out" more easily during delivery.

Trichophagia is the ingestion of hair. Those suffering from trichophagia and its associated problems are almost always young, English-speaking females with long hair who exhibit the nervous habit of chewing strands of it. It is usually related closely to "mouthing" behaviors (chewing on pencils, fingernails, and so on but not swallowing them); if hair is accidentally ingested over a long period of time, "hairballs" can form in the stomach, causing serious gastrointestinal problems.

There are many other types of picas, including lithophagia, the eating of rocks or pebbles. Sometimes the danger arises not from the items consumed but from their effect on the digestive system or the body in general. One of the most dangerous, the consumption of paint chips by small children, can result in lead poisoning.

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